Tax Fight: The Prequel

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Sooner or later, we knew the state budget saga this year would include a debate about taxes.

We just didn't know it would come so soon.

Governor Jerry Brown hasn't even yet unveiled his state budget -- that comes on Monday -- and already a fight is ready to explode over the idea of a special election where voters are asked to extend tax increases set to expire in July.

There's no official word yet that Brown will call an election. And it's that 'before-it's-even-out-there' status of a tax vote that makes the early volley of crossfire so unusual. And interesting.

This morning, the 'T' word came up several times at a news conference where Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson declared a "state of financial emergency" in California's schools.

"We must put more resources in," he said. And while Torlakson tried to avoid getting out in front of an announcement by Brown of a budget related tax measure, especially one linked to school funding, other education advocates at the event had no problem trying out a few lines you'll probably hear again.

"Doing better by our children is not a matter of affordability," said Rick Pratt of the California School Boards Association. "It's a matter of priorities."

And from Bob Wells of the Association of California School Administrators: "A lot of people are going to portray this as a tax increase, and it's not. It's asking the voters and the taxpayers to leave in place the tax structure that they're working with right now."

But supporters of a supposed tax fight at the ballot box aren't the only ones launching a preemptive strike. A leading anti-tax organization is already telling Republican legislators that a vote to place the question before voters is just as deadly for their political careers as actually supporting the extension of the 2009 income, sales, and car tax hikes.

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, has informed GOP legislators that there's no wiggle room on the 'no taxes' pledge that they signed while campaigning for office. And it appears all Republicans in the Assembly, and all but two in the state Senate, signed the pledge.

On the GOP Flash Report blog, Norquist's letter to these lawmakers says, in part:

Voting to send tax increases to the ballot would violate the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, a written commitment that you made to your constituents to "oppose any and all efforts to raise taxes"... I urge you to stand up for California taxpayers by opposing Gov. Brown’s efforts to refer higher taxes to the ballot.

As everyone knows, the real fight -- should all of the chatter be true about Brown sending budget related measures, including taxes, to the ballot -- will be over how to frame the issue for voters (a tax continuation or a tax hike?). And given that any measures actually placed on the ballot by lawmakers would take weeks to negotiate, it's likely that the only way to effectively run a 'yes' or 'no' campaign is by getting in the news as soon as possible.

So let the prequel begin!

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • peter lorenzo

    Speaking of taxes in a budget emergency when will we revisit Prop 13?